Gay Parita, A Route 66 Landmark That Holds A Unique Spot In Ozarks History
Kaitlyn McConnell is the founder of Ozarks Alive, a website that is dedicated to the preservation and documentation of local culture and history. To visit the site, click here. And to listen to the audio essay of "Ozarks Alive: Time Capsule," click the "play" icon below.
Driving historic Route 66 from Springfield takes wanderers both down the road and decades into the past. Iconic remnants still stand along the way, telling tales of days long gone. But one memory lives on in the form of an old-fashioned Sinclair service station called Gay Parita, located some 20-some miles west of the Queen City.
The small, colorful station, adorned with vintage décor, is truly a sign of the times. It’s a place for travelers to stop and see, enjoy a piece of Americana, and connect with others on a similar journey along the Mother Road.
“I get to see something every day that you don’t get to see. Let me explain. Particularly with our foreign visitors, you must imagine what kind of novelty it is just to visit this country. When I open this gate each morning, and those folks come up, I get to look in their eyes and guess what I see? It’s like children on Christmas morning opening a Christmas present. That makes me the luckiest guy on the planet.”
Those are the words of George Bowick, who lives at Gay Parita with his partner, Barbara Barnes. It was Barbara’s father, a man named Gary Turner, who developed the station into the landmark it is today. They continue a legacy that began around a century ago, when the station was opened by Fred and Gay Mason in the 1920s.
“They caught wind that 66 would be coming through, so they built the garage and the gas station, and right over there by where the Hibiscus hedge is they had three cabins. Now, more properly they would have been called motor courts, because they had the carport deal,” says George.
Traffic buzzed by until the 1950s, when the service station burned to the ground. It was rebuilt, but burned down again just a few years later and wasn’t revived.
Until the turn of the 21st century, that is. That’s when the Turners rebuilt the service station and opened it to travelers – or, as Gary thought of them, future friends.
“He was known as the Ambassador of Route 66. That’s how people know this place is here,” says George.
George says he thinks part of Gary’s interest began with vintage vehicles, several of which are seen at the station today. But regardless of why, Gary and his Sinclair service station hat soon became iconic sights along the road.
“What Gary used to say was: It was the dream of a lot of people to ride Route 66 in its heyday. And Gary’s dream, he said, was to meet those people. When he met them, consequently, they were friends for life. That’s him in a nutshell.”
In addition to the service station, the Turners opened the garage and put a variety of vintage vehicles on display to see – all for free. Most things remained the same after George and Barbara moved from the East Coast to take over Gay Parita. They also kept it free to see, and instead they generate revenue through donations and souvenir sales. Today, they are the third iteration of operators to live on the property.
“That’s the same house that Fred and Gay Mason lived in, that’s the same house that Gary and Lena Turner lived in, and now it’s where Barbara and I live,” says George.
The vantage point gives the couple a unique opportunity to become acquainted with many people across cultural lines. Route 66 is a substantial draw for international travelers who come to the United States. That’s a fact that has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic; George estimates that around 85 to 90% of travelers today are from outside the United States, causing a steep decline in visitors.
"It’s been that way since COVID started," he says of the lower numbers. "Things are starting to pick up a little -- and I’ll be optimistic, until they open up international borders, we’re kind of treading water, so to speak."
What draws those people? Perhaps something that ties in with George's life experience, too.
"After the war, those folks were immersed in the same American culture that I grew up with," he says. "Same movie stars, same music, same cars. And I think people of my age group find all that very romantic still, very nostalgic still. Anytime we see any of that physically, it transports us back to that time and that feeling and I think that’s exactly what it is for them.
"Something we imagine as intangible becomes tangible."
For Ozarks Alive: Time Capsule, I’m Kaitlyn McConnell.